Cremation — an environmentally friendly approach

A wilted rose bouquet at the Miramar National Cemetery in San Diego. (Photo: Sherry V. Smith)

The environment plays a big part in Capitol legislation, but here’s a topic rarely linked to the environment – cremation.

Traditional fire-based cremation entails emissions and pollutants.

But a little-known bill signed by Gov. Brown allows the use of a water-based method called alkaline hydrolysis, which has been used elsewhere since the 19th century.

The bill, AB 967 by Assemblymember Todd Gloria, D-San Diego, authorizes the commercial use of the eco-friendly alternative to cremation and burial, effective January 2020. The measure was sponsored by San Diego-based Qico, Inc., which advocates for what it describes as “sustainable cremation.”

Samantha Sieber is very familiar with alkaline hydrolysis.

She’s the vice president and co-owner of Bio-Response Solutions, a “mom-and-pop” company based in Dansville, Indiana. It specializes in the design and production of alkaline hydrolysis machines and other laboratory equipment.

“The process is very sterile and prevents the release of emissions into the atmosphere,” Sieber said.

After a corpse is placed into the pressurized, stainless-steel vessel, a liquid solution consisting of 95 percent water and 5 percent alkali gently flows over the body, reaching temperatures of about 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

An alkaline hydrolysis machine. (Photo: Samantha Sieber)

“The process uses less water than the average American household uses in one day,” Sieber says.

After the four- to six-hour cremation process, the caramel-colored water is drained, treated and given back to the environment.

“What’s left is calcium phosphate that decomposes a body’s bones,” she said.

The calcium and bone fragments are ground into a fine white ash. Although this process takes more time than fire cremation, families are left with a lot more ash, Sieber said.

“None of the materials are lost up a stack like fire cremation,” she added. “In fact, with alkaline hydrolysis there is no stack.”

But it doesn’t just stop at ash.

Bodies that go through hydrolysis do not need to be rid of implants or pacemakers before the water cremation.

“Alkaline hydrolysis keeps them all intact, clean and ready to be recycled,” Sieber said.

The eco-friendly machines were first used in the 1800s as a way to turn dead livestock into plant food. Almost a century later, researchers at Albany Medical School College used the process to liquefy bodies used for research.

According to the Mayo Clinic, which has housed a hydrolysis machine for donated bodies since 2005, the hydrolysis process is an accelerated version of what the human body goes through when naturally decomposing.

So far, 16 states, including California, have been authorized to use commercial alkaline hydrolysis machines — Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Vermont and Wyoming.

In 2015, UCLA used the equipment as part of their Donated Body Program for research in the medical and dental programs. According to the Daily Bruin, more than 160 bodies are donated to the program each year.

California is also home to pet alkaline hydrolysis machines, more so than any other state.

“The process is so gentle, that is very popular for cremation of tiny pets like parakeets, dwarf gerbils, hamsters, sugar gliders, turtles, etc..,” Sieber said.

The California bill requires all facilities operating alkaline hydrolysis machines to obtain steel chambers approved by the Department of Public Health and require each facility to have access to a registrar of local birth and death records, much like current rules for funeral homes.

Where hydrolysis is available, families are choosing it over 80 percent more than fire cremation even if it is at a higher price.

Fire cremation facilities charge up to $1,000, some ranging through $4,000 Sieber said. She said water cremation typically costs $500 to $1,000 more.

“This is one of the few things in the last hundred years that has been consumer-driven in the funeral industry,” Sieber said.

According to Forbes, the U.S. funeral industry accounts for about $20 billion in annual economic activity. In 1960, the average cost for a funeral was about $700. Today, funerals can be up to $9,000, including the funeral director’s fee, embalming, viewing, a possible headstone, combined with either cremation or burial.

At one large retailer, casket prices range from $1,000 to $5,000, and urns are available starting at $89.


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